WARNING: This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens won’t just go down as one of the year’s best films; the marketing campaign Lucasfilm put together is arguably one of the finest in recent memory. The studio went all out to raise awareness for the saga’s latest installment, and the months leading up to the movie’s release was a full blitzkrieg of television spots, trailers, and of course, copious amounts of licensed merchandise – ranging from Hasbro toys to Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Someone would have had to be living off the grid to not know that a new Star Wars movie was coming out in 2015. But the omnipresence of Force Awakens materials wasn’t what made the advertising so special. As evidenced by emotional reactions to the film’s theatrical previews, something about the marketing struck a chord with the fan base and even the movie’s cast. It’s true that the galaxy far, far away means so much for many film fans, but not every blockbuster sports trailers that can make people tear up. So what are the lessons Hollywood can learn from the Force Awakens advertising strategy when promoting other franchises?
NOTE: For the purposes of this post, we are focusing mainly on trailers. Merchandising plays a huge role in Star Wars, but that isn’t replicable with every major franchise. Each film does, however, have previews.
Respect the Core Fan Base
After the infamous Star Wars prequel trilogy left many fans numb to the idea of further adventures in the universe, Lucasfilm needed to reassure moviegoers that the sequels would be worthwhile investments. Throughout the pre-release phase, there was heavy emphasis placed on director J.J. Abrams’ insistence on using practical effects and real locations as often as possible. The original films, released from 1977-1983, were known for their “lived-in” aesthetic, and much of the action was captured in-camera (and not added in via computer graphics). From the get-go, fans knew that the new movies would at least look like the spiritual successors to the classic trilogy, and that things would be grounded in some capacity.
That said, fans didn’t well up because they saw John Boyega walking through a real-life desert as opposed to being in front of a green screen. It was easy to tell that The Force Awakens had the visuals of a Star Wars movie down pat, but the franchise is a lot more than that. The biggest question in the lead-up to Episode VII was if it was going to feel like a Star Wars movie, in terms of the emotion and character dynamics that made the first trilogy a beloved touchstone for generations of viewers. There are certain things fans come to expect when they sit down for a Star Wars film, and it was important that The Force Awakens featured most (if not all) of them.
For many fans, the first real moment of “this is Star Wars” came during the second teaser trailer that was shown at Star Wars Celebration. The nostalgia of hearing John Williams’ legendary musical cues tugged at the heartstrings, playing over shots of fast-paced action and intimidating villainy that have become series trademarks. And of course, Han Solo was back on board the Millennium Falcon, telling his trusted pal Chewbacca, “Chewie, we’re home.” It wasn’t just the characters that were home; the line could be applied to the franchise as a whole. If there was anyone doubting that The Force Awakens could be a return to form, this was the turning point.
The second teaser set the template for all future previews. Combining the old with the new, Lucasfilm made sure audiences knew this would be a classic space opera with a modern twist, representing an evolution for the series that still honored its roots. A recurring statement that many expressed with each international trailer and TV spot was “this feels like Star Wars.” For longtime fans, that’s what made the impending arrival of The Force Awakens a celebration. The saga wasn’t just coming back – it looked and felt like the films many grew up with, giving them something tangible to place their hopes in.
Disney did have to sell The Force Awakens to a new audience, but they understood that if Star Wars was to get back in the good graces of the film community, the new movie would have to appeal to the legions of pre-existing fans that made the franchise the juggernaut that it is. In today’s day and age of rebooting known commodities, updating properties is a big part of their continued success. But the studios marketing them still need to respect their traditions and honor the core fan base that will set the stage for the kind of buzz a project receives.
Take, for example, Star Trek Beyond. The film will premiere in theaters in 2016, as a means of celebrating Star Trek‘s 50th anniversary. Earlier this month, Paramount unveiled the teaser trailer for Beyond, and it inspired vitriol from the Trekkies. The use of the classic Beastie Boys song “Sabotage” and emphasis on high octane action seemed to go against the usual tropes Star Trek was built on. For many fans, the preview felt more like a generic sci-fi flick instead of a true Star Trek film. Given the divided opinions 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness generated, the studio may have been better to play it safe and use one of the more traditional cuts director Justin Lin has mentioned.
Even the film’s co-writer Simon Pegg was not a fan of the Beyond teaser, since he says there is more to the film than what was shown. However, Beyond is on very shaky ground. Pegg was told to rework Roberto Orci’s initial script because it was “too Star Trek-y” and Paramount reportedly wanted the film to be more like Marvel’s megahit Guardians of the Galaxy. Beyond isn’t in danger of becoming a massive box office flop, but Paramount isn’t exactly instilling warm and fuzzy feelings in Star Trek fans either. In the early going, they seem to be concerned with stripping Star Trek of its essence to make it appeal to a wide audience, instead of using that essence to show why it can appeal to a wide audience. The Force Awakens showed it’s possible to pull off the latter, and now Paramount needs to work overtime to win over the Star Trek fans again.
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